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16 July - 16 October 1998

16 July - Montpellier

  • Schoeck's Penthesilea may not be to everyone's liking, but there is no denying the considerable punch contained in these 80 minutes. A strange orchestral configuration (only four violins, but two pianos, ten clarinets and lots of extra brass) gives unusual colors, while the transitions between song, melodrama and spoken text are handled with great care. Birgit Remmert's deep alto might project more easily if she did not affect a slumped posture, but the two sopranos (Michaela Kaune and Gundula Hintz) offered lots of gleaming sound. Friedemann Layer conducted as if his life depended on it, which is the only way to approach such a work.

17 July - Beaune

  • The Capella de'Turchini turned up with a program that offered only one item not on their recent cds for Opus 111, but the infectious spirit of alto Daniela del Monaco, tenors Giuseppe de Vittorio and Rosario Totaro and bass Giuseppe Naviglio almost made us forget the lack of ballast in the music. Antonio Florio's quicksilver response remains exemplary, but it might have been kinder to release the singers from the anonymity imposed by the lack of explanation in the texts provided as to who sang what.

18 July - Beaune

  • Perhaps this concert performance of Handel's Admeto had been too much anticipated, but I left the courtyard of the Hospices with deep disappointment. After a stunning Serse last year, Susan Bickley's Admeto sounded as the mezzo were operating at half strength, while Hilary Summers imitation of James Bowman as Trasimede offers no pleasure. Only Sandrine Piau's Antigona was up to the demands of her music, leaving the wan Deborah York's Alceste way behind. Rousset's dancing tempi are always welcome, so that it was disappointing that the performance did not gel.

29-30 July - Aix-en-Provence

15 September - Lausanne

  • This year's excursion to the wilds of Jorat offered a pleasant return to traditionalism with a minimal Cosi fan Tutte set by William Orlandi in a gauze box with performers in traditional costumes. Gilbert Deflo's classic production moved the performers around to form pleasant groupings but there was little trace of personenregie, so that the once common accusation that the opera is little more than a marionette show was too easy to substantiate. Conductor Jonathan Darlington's steady mezzo forte echoed the unvarying dynamic of the production. Attention was focused on the Fiordiligi of Melanie Diener, but I wonder if she might not be more comfortable on the concert platform rather than in the opera house, though she did seem slightly more communicative than as Elvira at Aix last summer. The voice is round, well-projected, better able to deal with the music than many other sopranos who have recently tackled the role; while she tries hard to create a character, her face is not especially expressive so that too much is lost. The raucous sounds made by Randi Stene's Dorabella were a disappointment after her Hansel and Oktavian. Isabel Monar's saucy Despina offered some full-bodied singing, soubrette in character if not vocally, which is as it should be, while Carlos Chausson's Alfonso is successful despite a not totally orthodox vocal production. Kurt Streit's Ferrando seemed to be having an off day, strangling occasionally at the top, while Pietro Spagnoli's faceless Guglielmo offered little distinction vocally.

20 September - Ambronay

  • France's other major baroque music festival takes place about 50 kilometers from Lyon, using the Abbey of Ambronay. As at Beaune, everyone who is anyone turns up here. This evening it was William Christie and Les Arts Florissants with the last performance of a tour devoted to Handel's Israel in Egypt. Why, however, in almost all performances of the composer's least rewarding oratorio for soloists are those singers not really up to par? The orchestra and chorus were exceptional on this occasion, but Timothy Robinson's mannered delivery was a trial. The exception was a new countertenor, Rachid Ben Abdeslam, straightforward in his delivery with no affectations.

21 September - Paris

  • A new production of Don Carlo at the Bastille offered the official 4-act version produced by Graham Vick with designs by Tobias Hoheisel. While the orchestra played like angels, James Conlon - good as he can be in other repertory - seems out of his element in Verdi. Carol Vaness was either ill (no announcement to that effect) or is going through a bad patch, as her inability to meet Verdi's demands in her two arias and several duets was a constant disappointment, further aggravated by the distressed vocal condition of Neil Shicoff in the title role. Vladimir Chernov's under-energized singing resulted in inaudibilty. Samuel Ramey's Filippo was more than welcome, especially as he seems to be totally recovered from the indisposition that forced him to cancel much of last season, along with Dolora Zajick's knock-em-dead Eboli (a debut at the Paris Opera), the voice under perfect control though not always flattered by the peculiar acoustics of the house. Kristin Sigmundsson's Inquisitor may have a clearer, lighter voice than we usually encounter in the role, but contrasted sharply with Ramey in their duet. Franz Hawlata is luxury casting as the Friar, but his upstage positioning did not help him to project vocally. Hoheisel's sets made much use of a cross motif, alternating with gauzy chiffons on which projections were shown at various times. The women's costumes were sumptuous, while those of the men seemed to alternate between the Edwardian period in Act 1 and the 16th century in Act 2.

27 September - Ambronay

  • Christophe Rousset's defense of Clérembault might have been more convincing had the singers been more authoritative in their performances of three solo cantatas and an oratorio. To be effective, the performer must invest some personality to make us believe in Abraham, or the parable of the adulterous woman. Rousset's contribution remains the strongest element of the evening, but one wishes that his colleagues had been more wisely chosen.

29 September - Geneva

  • Der Rosenkavalier inaugurated the remodeled Grand Théâtre, with Patrice Caurier and Moshe Leiser on their best behavior so that we had a performance sufficiently anchored in the past not to irritate the older public, yet at the same time sufficiently aware of what a younger audience regards as important. The three women gave of their best, with Tina Kiberg literally towering over the others as the Marschallin, but making us live through her existential fears. Angelika Kirschschlager's well-sung Oktavian could ideally be more expressive visually, but there are no quibbles concerning Elisabeth Norberg-Schulz's Sophie. Markus Hollop's Ochs, his first major assumption in a major house, was impressive enough, but he remained too much a caricature; musically, however, he was inside the role, only the highest notes insufficiently projected. Further performances should give him the experience and stamina needed to deepen his portrayal of what is a complex character. Philippe Augin's control over the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande was an additional factor contributing to our enjoyment.

8 October - Toulouse

  • Nicolas Joël's new production of Lucia di Lammermoor will also be seen later this year at the Metropolitan Opera, where it should delight audiences that were offended by Francesca Zambello's short-lived effort a few years ago. Ezio Frigerio's sets and Franca Squarcapino's sumptuous costumes are a solid contribution to this visual success. Marcello Alvarez is the new tenor sensation, fortunately living up to his reputation and even beyond. It is not often that one hears a tenor willing to sing over a wide dynamic range, and with sufficient artistic purpose to justify his interpretation. Umberto Chiummo's Raimondo offered the only other musical satisfaction at this performance, for Boris Statsenko's stentorian Ashton was staunchly one-dimensional. The major problem is the non-dimensional Lucia of Valeria Esposito, a singer whose voice sounds insufficiently supported except for some startling whistle-stop high notes. Her indifference with respect to on-stage events is amazing. A second cast featuring Annick Massis sounds more promising. Conductor Paolo Carignani blasted his way through, oblivious to the recommendations of the new Ricordi edition or the aural evidence of the new Mackerras recording on Sony.

11 October - Compiègne

  • Once again Pierre Jourdan has thrown another handful of dirt onto the grave of 19th century French opera in the guise of restoring the patrimoine. A non-production of Bizet's Jolie Fille de Perth in comic book sets and costumes too often seemed to cause the singers embarrassment, only Inva Mula in the title role overcoming an initial shock to astound us in the second half of the work with a touching mad scene, brilliantly sung and acted. Jean-François Lapointe's Duc seemed the most affected with his hairdo copied from Bart Simpson, so that he concentrated on his singing while we know he is capable of acting as well. Armand Arapian's wig problems did not prevent him from moving us in his famous lament. Charles Workman's Henry Smith, the tenor hero, showed a singer in trouble, the intrinsic quality of his voice too often betrayed by a faulty emission that resulted in a bleating sound. Jérome Pillement conducted his own edition and did his best to subdue the Failoni (Hungarian State Opera Chamber Orchestra) into a disciplined performance.

16 October - Lyons

  • The Académie Baroque Européenne was in the capable hands of William Christie this year who whose Lully's Thésée. The musicians are students from five conservatories - Paris, Lyons, The Hague, Caën and London's Guildhall School) and it would be difficult to fault the chorus or orchestra: we need have no fears for the future in this respect. With respect to the soloists, however, only the two leading women seem to have voices of operatic caliber, Aurélia Legay's Æglé more smoothly produced, Stéphanie d'Oustrac's Médée more overtly dramatic. This is not important, however, in the overall view of the work done by the professors and Christie in particular in imparting a genuine feel for the period to these young performers. The only dubious element was the mise en espace of Javier López Piñon, who had the youngsters engaging in a mysterious pantomime during the prologue and had not worked sufficiently with his singers so that they felt comfortable using the pseudo-baroque gestures they were evidently trying to simulate. This was the first of eight performances that will continue on to Paris, Utrecht, London, Brussels and Geneva, a reward for the long and hard work put in by the international assemblage.

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